If one of your goals as a writer is to be read, then sooner or later you will have to deal with negative reviews of your book. This could be as simple as a family member or beta reader telling you (tactfully or not) they didn’t like the book. Or it could be as painful as receiving multiple low-star reviews once the book has been published. Some of those negative reviews will have merit; some will not. Regardless, learning how to read them, accept them, and move on is a challenge all writers must face.
A few months ago, when I asked what you’d like me to write about, one question that immediately popped out to me was from Sionnach, who queried not just about negative reviews but about “unfair” reviews:
How do you learn to live with reviews that are patently unfair? My last book had mostly good reviews. Two, however, were two stars who were upset about graphic content. I always include content warnings about violence and steam level. I write the first sentences of my blurbs to include words/phrases that suggest violence if it’s in the book.
I really don’t know what else to do. The steam level is similar to other books in my genre, and the violence/gore would barely receive an R rating if it were a movie. All I can think of is just live with the reviews, but it’s hard. I know writers are supposed to have thick skins, but I hate reviews that just seem unfair. They get in my head while I’m writing and alter things.
As writers, we write for many reasons, but two predominant ones are wanting to put something of ourselves out into the world and to have that something be received. As such, writing is a supremely vulnerable act. The fact that it is almost inevitably partnered with rejection at some phase only makes it more so—and our courage in doing it anyway even more boundless.
Certainly, I have received my share of negative reviews over the years. Some of them stung because they were a little too true. Others stung exactly because they were anything but true. Part of my arc as a writer, and a person in general, has been learning how to understand my own reactions to negative reviews, to manage the personal damage, and to mitigate future effects. To some degree, this involves improving as both a writer and a marketer. Mostly, it comes down to looking within and working on my own expectations and identities.
6 Possible Reasons You’re Bothered by Negative Reviews of Your Book
In a minute, I will share some tips about dealing with negative reviews of your book, based on what I’ve learned through my own experience over the years. But first, I want to examine a few different reasons why negative reviews of your book may be impacting you. Each scenario can have a slightly different effect on you and require a slightly different perspective in re-centering yourself.
1. The Reviewer Is Making Good Points
Ultimately, the reason negative reviews of your book hurt is because they may be true. No author is perfect. Every story will legitimately deserve criticism of some facet.
Ironically, sometimes these are the sort of reviews that hurt the least. If you can recognize the validity of the criticism, at least you can do something about it. Even if it’s too late to correct the current book’s problems, you can at least learn from the advice and apply it to the next story.
2. The Reviewer Misunderstood the Book/Missed the Point Entirely
As Sionnach noted, perhaps the most frustrating type of negative review is the kind in which the reviewer seems to have misunderstood your intentions as a writer, or even entirely missed the point of the story. In response to Sionnach’s comment, Sara K. wisely noted:
I can’t tell you how to live with unfair reviews. However, as someone who has read tens of thousands of Amazon book reviews, I can tell you that getting a small percentage of unfair reviews is inevitable. (By “unfair” I mean books which say in the description “this has x” and a reviewer complains “this book has x.”) You’re not alone.
These reviews are frustrating because, really, what else are you gonna do? You can work to refine your presentation to create the correct expectations, but you will always encounter people who failed to pick up on the clues, however overt.
3. The Reviewer Was Cruel
Sometimes people are just mean. Even kindly worded negative reviews can hurt, but everything escalates when a reviewer’s language becomes personal, nasty, or even violent. Occasionally, these reviews can be easy to dismiss, when it’s obvious the reviewer is out of line and probably has a personal axe to grind that very likely did not originate with you or your book. Still, the effects of cruelty can linger long after you’ve rejected the person’s logic.
4. The Reviewer Made You Doubt Your Ability
This one is perhaps the most dangerous. Especially when you’re starting out, negative reviews (regardless of their merit) can make you feel invalidated as a writer. This is the single most important effect for writers to work through because you will encounter negativity. Some of it will point straight at parts of your writing that genuinely need improvement; some of it will be nonsense. Part of the challenge of growing as a writer is learning to recognize the difference and to be threatened by neither—both because you can and should improve where needed and because part of that improvement is learning to recognize when someone’s criticism is irrelevant.
5. The Reviewer Called Into Question Your Intentions
On occasion, reviews can get personal. This happens when a reviewer goes beyond simply analyzing your writing to making assumptions about you. Sometimes this is appropriate or at least unavoidable, depending on the nature of your writing. But sometimes reviewers will go so far as to assume that because “xyz” shows up in your story, you must be condoning it.
Even worse is when a reviewer makes negative assumptions about a writer based solely on the quality of the writing. For example, we sometimes see reviewers indicating that a writer must be “stupid” or “immature” or “shallow” simply because the reviewer found the style of writing lacking. When these comments are patently ludicrous, they may be easier to dismiss; other times they can hit home and stick around long after they’re welcome.
6. The Reviewer Is (Perhaps) Endangering Future Book Sales
Finally, there is the practical concern of fretting that a review of your book may negatively impact your sales. After all, potential customers do factor in ratings and reviews when deciding whether to purchase.
The good news here is that negative reviews can actually work in your favor. For one thing, they may serve to warn off future “wrong” readers who wouldn’t like the book anyway. Second, they can lend credibility to a book, proving the good reviews are more likely to be legitimate.
You won’t have a marketing problem as long as the negative reviews don’t outweigh the positive reviews. If they do, that points to other problems that need rectifying.
8 Tips for Dealing With Negative Reviews of Your Book
All right, so you’ve received a negative review of your book. You’ve analyzed the review and your response to it to determine which of the above categories it best fits into. But it still stings. You still can’t get it out of your head.
What do you do now? Do you listen to and try to make course corrections? Or do you ignore the review and keep right on as you were?
The answer will be subjective to both you and the situation. To help you out, here are eight tips based the lessons I have learned in interacting with my own negative reviews.
1. Get Very Clear on Your Motives and Intentions
When a negative review bothers you—and I mean bothers you—it’s a sign you’ve lost your own sense of center. In order to know which negative reviews to listen to and which to ignore, you need to get very clear on your own motives and intentions.
- Who are you as a writer?
- What are you here for?
- Why are you writing in general?
- Why did you write this specific story?
- What is your definition of success for this story?
- What were you trying to achieve with it?
- What did you already know was less than perfect about it—and you’re fine with?
Answering these question is not always a straightforward process. But the clearer you are in refining your own desires and goals for your writing, the clearer you will be in responding to other people’s opinions. If you know you want to write grimdark fantasy or cozy mysteries or lush literary fiction—and a reviewer doesn’t like that—then you can know they simply weren’t the right audience for your book and, as such, their opinions don’t matter that much.
2. Don’t Overthink It
If you’re keen on using negative reviews of your book to improve your writing, then good for you. But don’t overthink it. Or overfeel it. Listen to your gut—aka, your intuition.
True intuition is neutral, without emotional defensiveness. If your initial response is anger or hurt, that’s not your gut telling you it agrees with the reviewer. Rather, your intuition is the quiet, confident voice that knows whether the criticism has merit or not.
For example, when someone says your romantic subplot didn’t work, you will know at some level whether you agree with that or not. Either you realize they have a point, or you know that, in fact, your subplot worked exactly how you wanted it to. If you decide on the latter, don’t overthink your response. Trust your gut.
(However, there is a caveat. If you hear the same criticism again from a second source, that’s a sign you may want to revisit it.)
3. Don’t Give Other People More Authority Than You Give Yourself
The key to the above point is remembering that reviewers don’t automatically know more about writing and storytelling than you do.
Now, it’s absolutely true reviewers know themselves and their reaction to your story better than anyone. They know when they like something and when they don’t. But not everyone knows why they don’t like it. Although they may complain about your writing, the real problem may in fact be that they had a bad day, something in the book tweaked their own personal triggers, or they’re just pompous and want others to think they know what they’re talking about.
It’s also totally possible your reviewers do know more about storytelling and writing than you do. Many readers these days are very experienced and knowledgeable about story, even if they are not writers themselves.
The point here is that, either way, you don’t automatically have to believe that the opinions of negative reviewers deserve to have authority over your own understanding of story in general and this story in particular. Often, reviewers will be just plain wrong. Going out of your way to believe these reviews does no one any favors, you least of all.
4. Don’t Entertain Disrespect
The review format is a legitimate forum in which people can share honest opinions about books. There is nothing disrespectful about this. (Indeed, authors who bite back or complain may themselves be the disrespectful ones.) But there are lines. You do not have to entertain, even for a second, the opinions of someone who is not bothering to be respectful of you as a person or an artist.
It’s important to note that just because they dislike your book, this does not mean they are being disrespectful of you. But abusive language, name calling, shaming statements, unsolicited and patronizing attempts to “help” you, and bullying, among other inappropriate behaviors, don’t deserve a second glance.
If you feel shame or any of the other emotions that such reviews might be projecting onto you, that’s something for you to work on within yourself. It is not something that you should necessarily respond to (in 99% of instances, you’re probably wiser not to), but it is also not something you need to internalize or consider.
5. Examine Your Triggers
Negative reviews only hurt when they strike a nerve. Otherwise, they’re either a neutral background hum or useful information that can help you improve. Our own personal triggers can get in the way of both. Either we surrender authority to others without questioning the validity of their statements, or we become defensive to the point that we may be rejecting helpful advice that could improve our craft.
Regardless, the only way to work on this is to work on ourselves. Whenever a review stings, make it a practice to look within. The insecurities you’re feeling may have to do with your writing, but they may also have to do with pain points that did not originate with your art. Perfectionism is a common bane among writers, and when a review suggests a story is anything less than perfect (which it always is), the pain we feel in response may have less to do with the story’s problems and more to do with an inner sense of shame that needs to be recognized and rehabilitated.
6. Calm Your Nervous System
If you’re triggered by negative reviews, for whatever reason, it is important to not only work through your discomfort logically and emotionally, but also within your nervous system itself. Many people these days suffer from anxiety that is specifically triggered by social media and other online conversations—of which book reviews are certainly a part.
One way to honor your nervous system is to remove as many of the negative stimuli as possible. In other words, simply stop reading reviews. If this isn’t possible (and even if it is), you can also work with techniques to retrain your nervous system. Some methods that have been successful for me include daily meditation and breathwork, tapping, and affirmations.
One technique that has been particularly helpful is that of mentally revisiting triggers while holding the tips of my fingers to my forehead. This keeps blood flow in the front of your brain, reversing the flight or fight response and retraining your nervous system to realize it’s okay even in the presence of triggering stimuli.
7. Up Your Writing Game
Of course, the best way to avoid negative reviews of your book is simply to write a better book. Use negative reviews as incentive and, where appropriate, guidance for improving your writing and your marketing. Although it’s important to fully acknowledge your mental, emotional, and physical responses to negative reviews, it’s also important to work through the difficulties. Use negative reviews as motivation to keep improving.
8. Take a Look at the Negative Reviews for Your Favorite Book
Finally, if all else fails in helping you feel better after a negative review of your book, take a minute to look up your favorite books on Amazon. Go read the one-star reviews. Particularly if it’s a popular book, there will be many. This can help bring perspective to the fact that art is subjective. Not everyone will like every book. Even books you think are perfect will have legitimate detractors. So the next time you face down a negative review of your own, you can remind yourself you’re in good company!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s your best advice for dealing with negative reviews of your book? Tell me in the comments!
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland